Bringing society together one (male) athlete at a time

By: Caitlin Haworth

Every athlete grows up wanting to be the one to set a new standard, to break the records and to be the household name that families sit around a TV for. With a total of 5,714 strikeouts, 324 wins and 807 starts, Nolan Ryan dominated the MLB through his 27 seasons. At the height of his career in 1991, Ryan was the face of baseball that every little league player dreamed to be.

According to Communication scholar Nick Trujillo, Ryan was not only the face of baseball, but also the face of hegemonic masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity is defined as “the culturally idealized form of masculine character” (Trujillo, 1991). The five parts of hegemonic masculinity consist of a) physical strength, b) occupational achievement, c) familial patriarchy, d) frontiermanship and e) heterosexuality (Trujillo, 1991). Physical strength is categorized as force and muscle. For Ryan, this meant record-breaking strikeouts at unbelievable speeds (Trujillo, 1991). Occupational achievement separates work between genders with the idea that a woman cannot do a man’s job. Familial patriarchy follows colonial ideas that the man must provide for the family being the sole “breadwinner.” When most athletes sign multi-million dollar contracts for multiple years at a time, this concept is not hard to achieve. Frontiermanship is a quality that is harder to grasp now in the twenty-first century. Frontiermanship is a combination of cowboy-like characteristics that display almost always a white man with working class values. In the example of Nolan Ryan, this was displayed through his ranch background and “wild west” attitude (Trujillo, 1991). Lastly, heterosexuality encompasses more than just sexual orientation, and includes the mentality that heterosexuality is dominant over other sexual orientations. Trujillo argued, through media coverage focusing mostly on masculine qualities, Ryan personified the perfect example of hegemonic masculinity in sports (1991).

There are many faces of professional sports today that remain dominant figures in society, but it is more difficult to name just one athlete that embodies all aspects of true hegemonic masculinity. While the idea of one athlete possessing all aspects of this masculinity, similar to Ryan, is hardly recognizable, many athletes have specific characteristics that follow the outline presented by Trujillo. This article analyzes the physical strength of Bryce Harper, familial patriarchy of Stephen Curry and the frontiermanship of Dale Earnhardt Jr. leading up to 2015 compared to that of Nolan Ryan twenty-five years earlier. Finding these separate pieces of hegemonic masculinity in different athletes throughout professional sports is due to the fractured media of today rather than the more unified media of the past. Hundreds of cable channels, online broadcasts and social media accounts allow a greater audience to feel connected and related to a diverse range of players, therefore increasing the spread of sports through society.

Physical strength, in baseball, can be defined as multiple different qualities such as arm strength and homerun power. Many media outlets described Nolan Ryan as “the legend” with “cannonball fire” able to deliver “heat” at the plate (Trujillo, 1991). Ryan holds the MLB record for fastest pitch ever recorded at 108.1 mph. In today’s era of baseball, Bryce Harper encompasses many of the same strong physical qualities. In his 2015 season at the age of 22, Harper tied Nolan Arenado for first in home runs with 42 in the regular season. Harper was also second in the league for batting average at .330 and fifth in the league with 99 RBIs, and that’s just his offensive stats. On July 14, 2015, ESPN quantified a throw from Harper in right field to second base at 91.7 mph for an out. The highest average pitching speed from the highest ranked team that season was 90.5 mph. While on paper Harper is a dominating force, Trujillo argues physical strength, in relation to hegemonic masculinity, is not solely based on statistics but rather how the media displays the information (Trujillo, 1991). A series of articles from CBS Sports compares Harper alongside baseball legends like Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Joe DiMaggio and Willie Mays. An article in the Washington Post credits Harper to having the best swing in baseball, practically identical to that of Babe Ruth. The article goes on to note, “His throws from left rocket to the infield as if powered by jet fuel. He runs the bases with such aggression his helmet routinely flies off.” An article by ESPN calls Harper the “most feared hitter in baseball” simply because he has the greatest strength of anyone in the game. The media attention on Harper’s strength does nothing but further establish him as a dominant male force in the league. Similar to Ryan, the overwhelming statistics and demonstration of physical force allows Bryce Harper to be held up as the role model that many young athletes strive to be.

Another quality of hegemonic masculinity, according to Trujillo, is familial patriarchy. Familial patriarchy can be simply defined as a group of related members led by an authoritative male figure. Ryan was portrayed as the supporter and “protector” of the family having to be the main source of income to provide for a wife and kids (Trujillo, 1991). In a modern day, Stephen Curry can be given the same duties. Having his first child shortly after entering professional basketball, Curry soon took over the role as “family man” in the world of professional sports. Even though Curry’s wife, Ayesha, has developed a social media career through the years, it is often perceived as more of a hobby than a source of financial support. Additionally, Ayesha is often portrayed as a fan of her husband rather than an equally capable professional adult. An article published in early 2015 by USA Today discusses the many challenges Curry faces having to balance the pressures of being a successful, young, professional athlete as well as a regular 27 year-old supporting a wife and two daughters. The article fails to mention Ayesha having to raise the same two children. Furthermore, in many post-game interviews Curry is joined by his oldest daughter for questions and in doing so enforces the idea that he is the glue holding the family together. The supportive, loving, and genuine image established by the family often portrays Curry as the center of the circle, much like Ryan was the pillar to which the family leaned on. Curry and his wife are often shown as the modern day ideal celebrity couple. From their long history together to their fun-loving nature, the couple has quickly become the “prom king and queen of the NBA.” “Their life seems normal,” notes USA Today, which is relatable for many fans that are leading lives hardly comparable to Curry. Many male viewers can relate to having dreams of making it big, yet also know the reality of supporting a family. Being portrayed as a glorified, loving father while also being named 2015 MVP only heightens the respect for athletes like Stephen Curry.

The idea of a frontiersman originates from mid-west ranches and the image of cowboys working all day doing what they needed to do to keep busy. The same mentality can be applied to sports and related to masculinity from the example of Nolan Ryan. Ryan owned multiple ranches in Texas keeping him busy during the times he wasn’t striking out batters on baseball fields nationwide (Trujillo, 1991). In today’s era in a more modern way, Dale Earnhardt Jr. personifies the same idea. Having been born in North Carolina, Earnhardt Jr. is the third generation to take over the family business of racing. Much like a real cowboy, Earnhardt Jr. does not shy away after defeat (having only won one race in the five seasons leading up to 2014.) He is determined and persistent and works for what he wants. Additionally, Earnhardt Jr. is often portrayed as everyone’s favorite son since the loss of his own father in 2001. Since 2003, Earnhardt Jr. has been voted the most popular driver in NASCAR. Much like Ryan, he is sponsored by Wrangler and often stars in many commercials in which he is portrayed as a confident, attractive, irresistible man. Also similarly to Ryan, Earnhardt Jr. owns a bit of land where he spends most of his time in the off-season. As Trujillo explains, the ideal frontiersman is often portrayed as a gritty, hard-working, white male; a description that fits both Ryan and Earnhardt Jr. (1991). This image the media provides forces Dale Earnhardt Jr. into a category on his own. Consequently, he only appears more genuine to fans that can relate to his off-screen lifestyle.

A lot has changed regarding media in the 25 years from 1991 to 2016. ESPN radio began in 1992, ESPN Magazine in 1998 and the ESPN website in 2002. Now, ESPN is “the Worldwide Leader in Sports” with eight different TV channels, along with multiple radio stations and a booming website. On top of ESPN, there are hundreds of specialty sports channels, such as the NFL network, that host a variety of talk shows and live games for specific sports. Additionally, social media plays a large role in sports as fans can not only watch games from practically anywhere with an Internet connection, but also follow player’s accounts to stay updated during off-seasons. The growth of media through the last 25 years is the main cause in the divide of hegemonic masculinity. Players interact with fans in many different ways and information is spread through many more channels than ever before. While Harper relies on game recaps to reinforce his strength on the field, Curry’s family man lifestyle is greatly shown through social media just as Earnhardt Jr.’s gritty work ethic is shown through product commercials. Nolan Ryan once stood in as the man with all characteristics of hegemonic masculinity, but the features of this idea quickly spread with the influence of media.

Each athlete mentioned has a quality that is stronger and more prominent than the others qualities of hegemonic masculinity. As Trujillo stated, “masculinity becomes hegemonic when it is widely accepted as a culture” (1991). The rise of media since 1991 has had a great influence on hegemonic masculinity and more specifically it’s division among athletes. Fans looking for a strong, dominant male know to turn to Bryce Harper for unbelievable physical performances. Fans wanting a successful, relatable father figure turn to Stephen Curry to witness his level-headed, family minded actions on and off the court. Fans looking for a true-to-his-roots man find that in Dale Earnhardt Jr. who can clearly separate home and work life. The division of qualities between multiple sports and multiple athletes can be credited solely to the media and only increases the following of contemporary sports through society.


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